The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768–1771 [Volume Two]
Appendix IV — Thoughts on the manners of Otaheite
Thoughts on the manners of Otaheite
[Commonwealth National Library Ms, headed by Banks as above; it is in his hand. Presumably the letter, when fair-copied, was addressed to Bentinck. Count William Bentinck (1704-74) was one of the leaders of the Dutch aristocratic party in the eighteenth century.]
This Letter was wrote at the request of Count Bentink while I was in Holland 1773. who desird something of the kind to amuse the Princess of Orange.
The regard and attention paid by us Europeans to the fair sex is certainly one of the cheif reasons why our women so far exceed those of Climates more favourable to the produce of the human species in beauty as well as those Elegant qualifications of the mind which blending themselves in our manners make the Commerce between the Sexes so much more deligh[t]full to us than to the inhabitants of Africa or america in whose breasts I do not find the refinements of Love to hold the least place. Urgd by the calls of nature they take themselves wives whoom they regard and treat as their Servants beauty is a qualification by them neither esteemd or attended to if it was the Labour the women are obligd to undergo would soon destroy it
Can a man love who can set Idle and see the Object of his affection bearing a burthen of which he can releive her or can love exist even in countries where women are beasts of burthen I think not
[In the Island of Otaheite where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the inhabitants both the bodies and souls of the women are modeld into the utmost perfection for that soft science Idleness the father of Love reigns here in almost unmolested ease, while we Inhabitants of a changeable climate are Obligd to Plow, Sow, Harrow, reap, Thrash, Grind Knead and bake our daily bread and Each revolving year again to Plough, sow &c &c subject to Famine if the sun should parch or the rain should drench our superficial crop these happy people whose bread depends not on an annual but on a Perennial plant have but to climb up and gather it ready for baking from a tree which deep rooted in the Earth scorning equaly the influence of summer heats or winter rains never fails to produce plenty what a proportion of spare time must these people have when one of them by planting 4 breadfruit trees a work which can not last more than an hour does as much for his generation as a European who with yearly returning toil cultivating corn for his family and this Leisure is given up to Love
Except in the article of Complexion in which our European Ladies certainly excell all inhabitants of the Torrid Zone I have no where page 331 seen such Elegant women as those of Otaheite such the Greecians were from whose model the venus of Medicis was copied undistorted by bandages nature has full liberty the growing form in whatever direction she pleases and amply does she repay this indulgence in producing such forms as exist here only in marble or Canvas nay such as might even defy the imitation of the Chizzel of a Phidias or the Pencil of an Apelles
Nor are these forms a little aided by their dress not squezed as our women are by a cincture which scarce less tenacious than Iron at best but imitates an exagerated smallness of waist an artificial beauty not founded at all on the principles of nature, not Swelled out below by a preposterous mountain of hoop totaly concealing that Elegant swelling out of the shape natures favourite ornament of which it seems only an exagerated imitation their garments Composd of a kind of substance between Cloth and paper are rolld upon their limbs as accident not fashion directs not to Conceal but to cover them hangind [sic] down continualy in folds of the most Elegant and unartificial forms such Dresses are universaly to be seen in antique Statues and gems and in the work of the best Italian Painters who concious how unbecoming any dress cut out in a regular form must be Clothd their goddesses and angels in loose folds of Cloth not shapd to their bodies exactly as the Otahiteans now wear theirs
The Luxury of their appearance is also not a little aided by a freedom which their differing from us in their opinion of what Constitutes modesty causes a European thinks nothing of Laying bare her breast to a certain point but a hairs breadth Lower no mortal eye must Peirce An Otaheitean on the other hand will by a motion of her dress in a moment lay open an arm and half her breast the next maybe the whole and in another cover herself as close as prudery could contrive and all this with as much innocence and genuine modesty as an English woman can shew her arm or as women of the Spanish west Indies her breast when the first can not shew her breast nor the second her foot without commiting the highest indelicacy
Chastity in this Land of Liberty is Esteemd as a virtue, those who possess it are respected on that account; they say, we esteem that woman because she is chaste, as we say, we esteem her because she is charitable, yet the want of Chastity does not preclude a woman from the esteem of those who have it, no more than the want of Charity in this countrey: the consequence of this is, that the proportion of Chaste women there is much smaller than here, where the punishments bestow'd on a breach of it are so severe; yet are there women there as inviolable in their attachments as here a virtue which is probably the necessary consequence of mutual and sincere love. Their amusements are much the same as ours visiting and conversing with their neig[h]bours in a lively and familiar stile in which they excell; pleasd by the most trifling stroke of humour if it has only liveliness to recommend it their repartees and Jokes are frequent and always well receivdpage 332
Musick tho theirs is intolerably bad they are very fond of in Private they sing and play to their flutes in Publick they dance to flutes and drums and upon particular occasions even act in company with the men short dramatick performances somewhat resembling our Grand Ballets Gaming the province of the men they seldom meddle with and drunkenness which the men are too much given to no woman Ever attempts till she has arrivd at a certain age.
They rise at the Earliest dawn of day and soon after get their breakfast which consists generaly of small fry of fish after this the women of good Families who of course have many relations &c. in their houses that must be provided for spend a great part of their morning in regulating the provision of Clothes necessary for their dependants I have seen them often sitting in the midst of an amphitheatre of Cloth surrounded by their maids to whoom they gave orders to mend, wash, dye or alter such peices as they directed themselves seldom medling with any business but perhaps mending some of the finest or dying their red colour the brightness of which surpasses far any Colour known in Europe this last business is so creditable they [sic] they generaly when they leave off stain their fingers ends with the Colour as if to shew the world how industrious they are
About noon they dine and after dinner sleep till 4 or 5 O'Clock when the cool of the Evening invites them to set at their doors or may be wander to a neig[h]bours house where they chat till dark and then return home to supper after which they generaly sing and play with their flutes till they go to sleep
in general they are above the middle size and if they have any fault in their forms it is a disposition to plumpness which by them is valued as a beauty their hair is universaly Jet black their Eyes dark but their teeth even and whiter than ivory their hair they wear short and unornamented except upon particular occasions when they cover their heads with a Turban made of human hair platted together about the size of a thread of this the rich have enormous quantities a common head dress contains at least 2 Leagues and I have measurd a peice made upon an end without a knot above an English mile and three quarters in lengh this Turban which is rather wider above than below and is stuck full of the white flowers of Cape Jasmine makes an ornament which I think could not fail to please the nicest and most discerning taste
Both the men and the women have a singular custom of inlaying under their skin certain figures in black which are forever after indelible on their hands feet bodies and more especialy on and about their hipps for this Custom they give no reason but that they were taught it by their forefathers the doing it is attended with considerable pain yet so Essential is it esteemd to beauty and so disgraceful is the want of it esteemd that every one submits to it for my own part I am inclind to think that as whiteness of skin is esteemd an Essential beauty these marks were originaly intended to make that whiteness appear to greater advantage by the page 333 Contrast Evidently in the same manner as the patches usd by our European beauties
in Cleanliness these people excell beyond all compare all other nations dirt of all kinds is lookd upon as odious every one washes their whole body morning and evening nor if you see a hundred together will you find one with dirty or ragged Cloths nicety in food is also here carried to an inconceivable hight some there are in the Island who will not drink water but what is brought them from the sources of the brooks in the mountains nor eat any food but fish on account of the ideal filthyness1 of the food which both their Hogs dogs and fowls must occasionaly partake of
Fond as the sexes are of each others company the Customs of the Countrey will not allow them to Eat together and so nice are the women in observing this particularity for which they can give no kind of reason that I myself have seen them throw away and destroy the very vessels which containd their victuals which one of us had inadvertently touchd
The superior strengh of affection which the Soft Sex are capable of in preference to men is here remarkably conspicuous for their deceasd friends they mourn in tears of blood striking a sharp tooth into the tops of their heads so home that I have seen more than a pint of blood issue from one such operation and this they repeat frequently before the scaffold on which the deceasd object of their greif is placd one woman who in our neighbourhood mournd for the death of her mother reducd her self in less than a fortnight From florid health to the very brink of the grave
The Climate in which they live I beleive to be without exaggeration the best on the face of the globe situated in 17 Gr.2 of southern Lat. they are certainly in the torrid Zone but the smallness of their Island not sufficiently large to interrupt the course of the regular trade wind allows them to be eternaly fannd with breezes coold by their passage over the water they are guarded also from the impetuous waves of the sea by reefs or rather walls of rocks which surround them at 2 or 3 miles distance out in the sea these cause the water which washes their shores to be as smooth as a fresh water lake they travel therefore cheifly in Canoes which by being fastned 2 and 2 together are as steady as a ship on these the principal people have rooms in which they set and converse or sleep as they are inclind while their slaves transport them from place to place their visits are made with the utmost familiarity a family for instance when the weather is fine set out together to visit their neighbour and after staying a day tis ten to one but they join together and go to a third who with them goes on to a fourth who now gets notices of the number of Guests he is to expect and provides accordingly in this manner I have been in Company with above 30 Canoes whose crews were receivd with as much readiness and Ease as one could have beenpage 334
in these excursions they give a loose to all kinds of Jollity Dancing singing publick wrestling and plenty of musick which as the professers of it get their livelihood by traveling from place to place never fail to attend on these occasions
Luxury in this Island of Sensuality is Carried by the men chiefly to that hight that difficult as it is to beleive they destroy many children rather than bear the trouble attending their Education to have children here is lookd upon as a dishonor to a man nor will those who are free from that Burthen as it is calld even set down to meat with those who have
Far the largest part of the women however I must absolve from any share in the above mentiond barbarous custom some few there may be who consent to the orders given [by] the men with whoom they are connected with far the larger part hold this usage in the utmost abhorrence and do all in their power tho all is frequently too little to prevent it
1 ‘ideal filthyness’: i.e. the idea they have of the filthiness.
2 sic; a slip for ‘Deg.’?